Let me say it at the start: Ingrid Bergman is giving the best television performance of this year or, perhaps, any other year in the Operation Prime Time presentation ''A Woman Called Golda.''
This two-part, four-hour special based on the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir will be airing on at least 150 stations throughout the United States, so it is necessary to check your local listings, mostly independent stations, to locate it. But locate it you must.
''A Woman Called Golda,''(Monday, April 26, and Monday, May 3; to be repeated Wednesday, April 28, and Wednesday, May 5, check local listings for times) is an absorbing, frankly slanted and one-sided history of a woman who escaped from the pogroms of Russia, who emigrated from the public schools of Milwaukee to find her future on a kibbutz in Israel.
It is almost inevitable that a history of Golda Meir would also turn out to be a history of Israel, so intertwined was the growth of both. How she found her final calling in the newly formed state of Israel, the personal sacrifices she made, her feelings of uncertainty, have been made the foundation of a straightforward television drama with universal implications concerning the development of an intelligent, dedicated woman. ''Golda'' overflows with the exhilaration of commitment.
Besides the incomparable Ingrid, the cast includes such fine actors as Leonard Nimoy, Ned Beatty, Anne Jackson, and two fine Australian actors, Jack Thompson and Judy Davis. Miss Davis, in particular, plays the young Golda with such believable intensity that she has already created an indelible character for Miss Bergman to take over as the older Golda.
Ingrid Bergman, in what she says is the last role of her career, has come out of retirement to re-create the character of one of the great figures of the 20th century. Miss Bergman invests a great deal of her own commitment in the role. Without resorting to globs of makeup, somehow arranging her own Swedish accent to imply the Meir accent without making it an imitation or a parody, Miss Bergman manages to convey the essence of Mrs. Meir's character and the strength of her all-consuming dedication to her cause.
It is a restrained performance which seems so real as you watch that it is not until the drama is over that you realize you have fallen under the spell of the real Golda Meir, without a trace of the actress Ingrid Bergman - who has camouflaged herself utterly through a few calculated gestures, through eyes that tell a story many thousands of years old. Miss Bergman has told not only the story of a Zionist, she has told the tale of the potential place of women in society. It is a performance of genius.
I spoke to director Alan Gibson who revealed that Miss Bergman had resisted playing the role for a long time, being unable to identify with Mrs. Meir's appearance and convinced that it would be disaster trying to play a woman still remembered so well. As she read more and thought about her, Miss Bergman finally succumbed when she was convinced that she could do it without heavy makeup and theatrical tricks.
The only major cosmetic effect, other than padding to make her a bit stouter, were a pair of papier-mache legs, since Miss Bergman's legs were rather thin compared with Golda's sturdy legs (which had been enlarged even more by shrapnel from a hand grenade aimed at David Ben-Gurion, whom she leaped to protect).
Almost the entire film was shot on location in Israel, and the false legs, which took the form of leggings, were very hot. According to Mr. Gibson, almost every morning there would be a call from Miss Bergman or her dresser asking if the day's shooting would include scenes of her below the waist. When there were only head or waist-high shots, Miss Bergman gave a sigh of relief and arrived on the location sporting only her own legs.
Mr. Gibson feels that directing Ingrid Bergman may very well prove to be the highlight of his entire career. The film records the meeting of Meir and Anwar Sadat with humor and accuracy -- his amusement when she refers to herself as ''the old lady'' in the same way he had referred to her in private. Another unforgettable moment occurs when the new government at the time of partition overrides Ben-Gurion's decision to visit the King of Jordan and appoints Golda as the emissary.
''Nu! (So) Democracy!'' he says with an understanding shrug.
''Golda'' was written by Harold Gast and Steven Gethers, with ethnically appropriate schmaltzy music by Michel Legrand, under the supervision of executive producer Harve Bennett. All have taken seemingly disparate elements and somehow combined them to produce something more than an extraordinary television film.
Perhaps some sticklers for accuracy will find that here and there personal facts are slightly distorted to conform to the needs of the dramatization, perhaps there is a bit too much oversimplification of complex issues, but the fact remains that ''A Woman Called Golda'' overcomes such obstacles to emerge as an important testament for our time.